A Taste of... Storm's Justice
Kate Denson hurried down the sidewalk, only slowing her pace when she reached the wooden stairs of the front porch. Her breath came in white puffs, and thanks to her desire to be fashionable, the light peacoat she’d chosen for her night out did little to ward off the late December chill.
Glancing over her shoulder, she offered a wave goodbye to the black Honda idling beside the curb. Her best friend since elementary school had convinced her boyfriend to be their designated driver for an evening of barhopping, but Kate wasn’t even sure she’d attained a buzz.
She certainly hadn’t attained any fun.
Two days after Christmas, the nearest bar scene had been far more packed than she’d anticipated, and she and Marlee had been forced to wait a good half hour for their second drink. They’d quickly lost interest in getting drunk and used the time to nurse drinks while catching up on their respective college semesters.
Kate’s throat was still hoarse from shouting to be heard over the music, but the time with her friend had been worth the trouble. She and Marlee both attended schools in Chicago, but their busy schedules hadn’t allowed much hang-out time lately.
As Kate fished her house keys from her handbag, she noted that the Civic hadn’t left. Her heart lightened at the sight. Ever the protective friend, Marlee wouldn’t let Jared leave until she made sure Kate had gotten inside safely. Kate was grateful for the watchfulness, especially since the temperature had dipped below twenty. Their night together had ended earlier than either had planned, but the stillness of the evening made the time feel far later than ten forty-five. Heck, her parents might even still be awake.
Though a golden glow seeped through a couple windows of the house next door, all the lights of her parents’ place were dark. She remembered her mom mentioning the blackout curtains they’d installed in their first-floor bedroom. Her mom had claimed it was both for privacy and to help them sleep when they turned in early. Kate couldn’t imagine going to bed when it was still light out.
“Hope I never get old like that.”
Easing open the screen door, she slid her key into the lock like she was a thief in the middle of a diamond heist. The hinges creaked, and Kate flashed a thumbs-up to Marlee and Jared before she ducked into the shadowy foyer. If she’d forgotten her keys, she’d have been in for a long, cold stay on the porch while she waited for someone to wake up to get the damn door. Neither Anna Denson nor Stephen Denson had ever been what Kate would call night owls, and Kate’s younger sister, Kelly, had followed their lead.
Not Kate, though. She was the opposite of her parents and sister in just about every way possible.
The quiet din of the city was replaced by silence as Kate gingerly closed the door. She rushed to the keypad to silence the anticipated beeping, but there were no beeps to be heard.
That’s weird. Why wasn’t the alarm system armed?
Fear made the tiny hairs all over her body prickle, but she shook off the moment of worry. She’d told her mom that she would probably have a few drinks with Kristen and that Jared would be their designated driver. Her parents probably assumed she’d be too inebriated to properly punch in the code.
Kate snorted. She hoped her parents never learned of all the things she could do while wasted. They’d probably both have a heart attack.
She paused to let her eyes adjust to the lack of light. As she’d suspected, the only sources of illumination were a few strategically placed nightlights throughout the house. Her parents and her sister were all fast asleep.
After making sure her cell was on silent, Kate tucked it into her pocket and set her purse on a bench that ran the short length of the wall. She shrugged off her coat and hung the garment on the one free hook.
With her few drinks spread out over the evening and her night out cut short, she wasn’t the least bit tired. A junior at Chicago’s Northwestern Illinois University, Kate had become accustomed to late nights of cramming for exams and scrambling to make last-minute adjustments to papers and projects. It was still early as far as she was concerned.
Maybe she and Marlee should have tried a different location for their post-Christmas festivities, or maybe they should have gone with Marlee’s initial idea of attending a dance club.
Kate shivered. Her last time at a club hadn’t gone well. She’d damn near gotten into a fistfight with some pervert who’d groped her on the dance floor.
His reasoning for being such a creep? Kate had smiled at him.
“Sorry I’ve got manners, dipshit.” Her response had earned a scowl, followed by a rant about how women were all teases or some such nonsense. Kate had been ready to clock the fool, but her friend had jumped between her and the grope-happy perv.
She heaved a mental sigh and pushed aside the memory. No more dance clubs. Not until she had a black belt, or until she got off her ass and went to one of those Krav Maga sessions Marlee had told her about.
For tonight, she’d just have to find a way to entertain herself until she fell asleep. At least she’d be in her own bed and not on Marlee’s uncomfortable couch.
Stretching both arms above her head, Kate padded past the open living room toward the kitchen. Even in the darkness, she knew how to navigate around the furniture without stubbing a toe or bruising a shin. Fortunately, her parents hadn’t rearranged the room in some time. Kate lived in her dorm for most of the year, but when she stayed at home, she always found herself sneaking around the place in the dark.
Not that her parents had an issue with her going to a bar with some friends. She was twenty-one, after all. But like she’d pointedly advised the moron from the club, she’d been raised with manners. Just because her stomach growled like clockwork for a late-night snack didn’t mean she would parade through the kitchen like a human-sized tornado and wake everyone.
A cartoon image of her as the Tasmanian Devil from Looney Toons popped into her mind, and she stifled a laugh. Marlee was going to school for art. Maybe Kate could convince her to draw the silly picture.
As Kate reached for the handle of the stainless-steel refrigerator, she froze.
What the hell was that?
From the direction of the dark hall that led to her parents’ room, she could have sworn she’d heard a noise. Was it her dad snoring? Farting in his sleep?
Despite the humorous thought, cold needles of dread prickled the back of her neck. Kate couldn’t attribute the sensation to the usual concern over whether or not she’d woken her mom or dad on her way to the kitchen, either.
It’s nothing. Probably the furnace or something.
She was about to concede to the rationalization when another bizarre groan drifted from the hall. A groan or a grunt?
Either way, the noise had definitely not come from one of the household appliances. Was it a movie?
One hand resting on the fridge handle, Kate peered into the dark hallway past the kitchen. A slat of faint light fell from the half-closed door, not quite bright enough to be the overhead light but not dim enough to be the television. She waited for a flicker that might indicate a scene change, but the golden glow remained steady.
Not a movie or a television show. Did her parents even keep a TV in their room? Kate wasn’t sure. As an adult, the instances when she visited her parents’ bedroom were few and far between.
The next noise was a cross between a grunt and a moan, and a sudden realization dawned on Kate.
Were her parents having sex?
Oh god, please no.
Her gut twisted, her appetite vanished. Why in the hell had they left the damn door open? Kate didn’t live at home full-time, but her sister was still a senior in high school. Just because Kelly was likely asleep upstairs didn’t mean their mom and dad would leave their room open when they were getting it on. They’d known Kate was out and that she’d be home eventually.
Did they want to gross her out? Was this some weird display of dominance, an effort to remind Kate whose house this was?
No, that was ridiculous.
Heart in her throat, Kate remained rooted to the spot as the needles of dread morphed into full-on daggers.
College campuses could be a hostile environment for a young woman, and Kate had learned to trust her instincts when it came to her fellow students and faculty members. If her gut told her a house party was bad news, she’d collect her friends and leave. Any time a frat boy regarded her with that predatory glint in his eyes, she was always tempted to remind the creep that her mother was a federal judge for the Northern District of Illinois.
One in five girls were raped during their college careers, and Kate was determined to leave NIU with her degree, a few new friends, and nothing else. She was already a statistic thanks to a former friend’s father, and she’d be damned if some dipshit frat boy made her check another box on her list of lifelong traumas.
She’d learned to trust her instincts, and right now, her instincts were screaming something was very wrong with this situation. With those…sounds.
Swallowing the sandpaper that had become her throat, Kate finally let go of the refrigerator. Even if this turned out to be nothing, she’d lost her appetite.
Though every neuron in her brain was trying to convince her nothing was amiss, Kate took a tentative step toward the hall. She didn’t want to walk in on her parents screwing, but at the same time…she wasn’t so sure that was what was happening.
She needed to know her parents were okay. That a burglar hadn’t broken in to tie them up while they rifled through the family’s valuables, or worse.
Almost as an afterthought, Kate paused and pulled a butcher knife from the magnetic rack hanging beside the stove. Feeling slightly more confident now that she was armed with the same weapon Michael Myers used to torment Haddonfield, Illinois in the Halloween films, she slowly made her way to the hall.
Another grunt and moan were followed by a muffled whimper, sending a jolt of fear through Kate’s already tense body.
She wanted to turn around, go up to her room, and crawl under her blankets like a small child hiding from the monsters under their bed.
Should she call 911?
And tell them what? That you heard some weird noises from your parents’ bedroom?
She needed to witness for herself what was happening.
Clamping her hand as tightly around the knife handle as she could manage, Kate forced herself to take the next few steps. The soft glow spilling through the door was no longer warm. Instead, the illumination had morphed into the twisted light signaling the transition to a villain’s lair in a horror film.
Ever so slightly, she tested each part of the hardwood before settling her weight more fully. Burglar or not, she didn’t want to alert anyone to her presence.
The trip to the partially open doorway seemed to take far too long. Her heart clamored against her chest like it was trying to escape from her body, and any semblance of moisture had left her mouth. Even if she managed to avoid all the creaky parts of the floor, she was convinced the thud-thud-thud of her heart would alert anyone nearby of her presence.
Finally, after the agonizingly slow trek down the hall, she stopped short of the doorway. The noises were more distinct now, and Kate knew they were definitely not normal sex sounds.
For starters, the moans and groans of pleasure, or whatever in the hell they were, belonged to a male. And the, ugh…pained whimpers, well, those were male too.
Moving the knife behind her back and out of sight, Kate held her breath and hesitated. She wanted her brain to talk her out of this…whatever in the hell this was. She wished she could convince herself her parents were swingers, that they were into some kinky shit, or that their preference in porn had taken a turn for the nontraditional.
But all the rationalizations fell short of the sickening ball of dread sinking in her stomach.
One quick look. That’s all she needed.
Poke your head around the corner, see what kind of weird stuff Mom and Dad are into, and then get the hell out of here and pretend like none of this ever happened.
Before she convinced her muscles to follow through with the plan, Kate knew she was standing at the precipice of an event that would permanently alter the rest of her life.
Just like she had when she’d spent the night with her friend Ginny for the first time. When she’d joined Gin and her father for dinner, the man had shot her a sneaky wink from across the table.
The alarm bells in the back of Kate’s head had told her to text her mom and ask for a ride home. To lie and say she didn’t feel well. To get the hell out of that house.
But she hadn’t. She’d ignored her instincts, and she’d paid the price. Much like tonight, she’d seen the yawning chasm ahead of her for what it was…something that would change her forever.
When Ginny’s father had woken her in the middle of the night and taken her to his room, that was the same sense of impending dread that now flowed through every vein, every capillary in her entire circulatory system. She hadn’t known he’d put a mild sedative in his own daughter’s food to make her sleep through his intrusion.
Now, an inexorable force propelled Kate forward. The inexplicable knowledge that no matter how she reacted, nothing would ever be the same.
Clenching her teeth together so tightly her jaw ached, Kate put her back to the drywall and moved forward until her shoulder was flush with the doorframe. She flexed her fingers on the grip of the knife, took in a silent breath, and inched her head forward.
The sole source of illumination was the light from the walk-in closet. Otherwise, the heavy, forest green curtains had been drawn to block out the picture window overlooking the backyard.
Kate didn’t need an overhead light to realize something terrible had happened.
No, something terrible was happening.
In the little alcove that housed the window, Kate’s mother was slumped in front of the settee where she liked to curl up to read on a rainy day.
Instead of a book in her hands, her wrists were bound together. The silver duct tape was smeared with blood, likely from the fresh gash on her forehead. Tears ran down her cheeks, streaking through the crimson staining the tape over her mouth. Though Kate’s mother could have spotted her if she’d turned her head, she wasn’t able to do so. Duct tape ran across her forehead, binding her to a table leg. And her eyes…they’d been taped wide open.
Kate was sure the scene couldn’t get much worse, and she held onto that certainty until her eyes moved to the king-sized bed.
The green and white patterned blankets Kate’s dad always took such care to straighten each morning were a disheveled bundle at the edge of the mattress, and at least half the collection of pillows was strewn across the floor. A darker bundle rested next to the comforter, the details shrouded in the shadow cast by a person standing over the bed.
It took Kate a moment to notice the supposed bundle wasn’t bedding at all. It was her father.
And the man standing over the bed…
She clamped a hand over her mouth to suppress a gasp. Or a sob, she wasn’t really sure.
The metal of a belt clinked as the broad-shouldered man pulled his pants up over what Kate suddenly realized was his bare ass.
That couldn’t be right, could it? Those couldn’t have been the sounds she’d heard as she was creeping down the hall. The moaning and the whimpering. Had that man brutalized her father?
Kate’s head spun like a dreidel. Her stomach lurched, bile racing its way up the back of her throat. Before she risked making a sound that would give her away, she slowly backed out of the doorway.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she tightened her hand over her mouth, the other still desperately clutching the butcher knife.
What did she do now?
What could she do?
The figure hulking over her parents’ bed was easily over six-foot, and he was built like a linebacker. On a good day, Kate reached five-nine—one inch shy of her mother’s five-ten, and five inches shorter than her father.
She’d put on her freshman fifteen a few years ago and then a little more to boot. Though she diligently attended the gym four days a week, she’d barely managed to lose ten pounds, much less hammer out a physique that could compete with a six-foot-plus, muscle-bound man.
Even if she’d gone to those damn Krav Maga lessons, was she really any match for the rapist now towering over her poor father?
Her parents had a few guns, but there was one problem. And it was a major one.
The guns were in their bedroom.
All Kate had was the butcher knife, but she wasn’t indestructible. She wasn’t Michael Myers, and this wasn’t the town from Halloween. It was Chicago.
Do something. You have to do something to help them. Is he going to kill them? Is he going to rape Mom next? What about Kelly?
Each thought whipped through her brain like rounds from a plasma rifle in one of those shooter games Marlee and Jared liked to play.
She snapped her eyes open, half-expecting to be face-to-face with the man from the bedroom.
Instead, she saw only the gray-blue drywall of the hallway wall across from her parents’ bedroom and the trio of evenly spaced family photos that adorned it. Pictures of her, Kelly, Mom, and Dad. All staged, of course, but their smiles were genuine.
Kate’s vision blurred as tears stung the corner of her eyes. Christ, how long had she been standing here, clutching so desperately at the threads of a reality that was threatening to unwind?
Too long. She needed to do something.
But what? Call the cops? The man in the room would hear her. She needed to get out of this part of the house if she wanted to call 911.
Just as Kate was preparing to take her first step away from the doorway, an unfamiliar voice stopped her dead in her tracks.
“How does it feel to watch someone you love suffer like that, Anna?”
Terror pulsed through Kate’s body like lightning. The man wasn’t addressing her, though.
He was talking to her mom.
“Now you know what we had to endure. Or, at least, you will know. Soon.”
There were two of them?
Kate’s knees had turned to rubber, and her stomach threatened to expel her earlier drinks and snacks from her night out. Was a second man in the closet? Was that why the light had been turned on?
Desperate to make sense out of what was happening, Kate dipped her head through the doorframe before she could think better of the action. Her eyes darted from her mother to the bed and then to the man whose back still faced the doorway.
One, two, three…where was the accomplice?
Hidden. Out of sight. What did it matter?
What if he was somewhere else in the house? Had he gotten to Kelly?
Before Kate retracted to hide behind the wall, the intruder produced an item from his coat. A handgun, one that had been fitted with a sound suppressor.
By now, Kate was numb to the sheer horror that had threatened to consume her only moments ago. She was pointedly aware this wasn’t a nightmare, but she also knew she was missing something. Chances were, she’d die before she ever found out what that something was.
“It’s a shame, Anna.” The man leveled the weapon to where Kate’s father was still facedown on the bed. “You had such a beautiful family. You know what that’s worth these days, don’t you? But you squandered it. You squandered it by ruining another family. And now, you’ll pay for it.”
A soft pop came after the cryptic remark, followed almost immediately by a muffled wail of agony from her mother.
Mom. Dad. Why was this happening?
Her feet acted of their own volition, carrying her down the hall and avoiding all the creaky boards she’d crept past on her way to the kitchen. Adrenaline and abject terror fueled Kate’s movements, and she was propelled forward by her primal instinct to survive.
She was across the open-air living area in seconds and had her hand on the front door before reality returned.
Kelly. She needed to go get Kelly. After that, she’d call the cops and get them both the hell out of there.
Turning from the door, she realized the stairs posed a brand-new challenge. Though the house had been renovated with modern appliances and a more functional floor plan, the place was still more than eighty years old, and the hardwood was original.
During her high school years, Kate had committed the squeaky parts of the steps to memory. As the sole night owl of the family, she’d utilized all her stealth to make her way to and from the kitchen while everyone else was asleep.
The intruder in her parents’ room might not have been able to hear the creak of the steps if she landed in the wrong spot, but she still had no idea where the other man was. If he was creeping through her dad’s study or through the upstairs bedrooms, then she didn’t want to alert him of her presence. Right now, stealth was her only defense.
As she reached the top landing, a sliver of relief pierced through the fog of dread. Kelly’s room was the second door on the right—directly across from Kate’s. Once she got Kelly, they could hide in the attic, a closet, their shared bathroom, somewhere, and Kate could call the cops.
She wasn’t so sure they could risk a trip downstairs, but if she minimized the volume on her phone and hid behind a closed door, she could get through to 911 without alerting the intruders. If a phone call wasn’t an option, then she could always send a text message to Marlee and Jared to ask them to call the cops on her behalf. As long as the two weren’t getting it on or sleeping…
Kate shut down the slew of what-ifs. She had to focus. She needed to get her sister the hell out of here.
Kelly’s door was closed, a habit she’d picked up around thirteen. Before then, they’d all slept with their doors open so the family’s two cats could migrate from place to place overnight. Once the beloved pets had passed, Kate was off to college, and Kelly had begun to value her privacy like a normal teenager.
Keeping her breathing as quiet as humanly possible, Kate glanced back and forth to ensure no one was about to creep up on her. As she twisted the doorknob, she clenched her jaw like it would prevent extraneous noise.
She threw another paranoid look over her shoulder, pushed the door open just wide enough to slide through, and closed it behind herself. Though Kelly’s room was as dark as a cave, Kate didn’t have time to pause to let her vision adjust. They needed to get the hell out of this house, and they needed to do it now.
As Kate crept along the carpeted floor, she strained her hearing for any signs that the madman from downstairs might have decided to change targets.
The room was quiet. Too quiet.
Without the quiet hum of the furnace in the background, Kelly’s room was as silent as a tomb.
Cold fingers of dread began to close in around Kate’s heart. Shouldn’t she hear Kelly breathing? Snoring? Something?
Maybe she went over to a friend’s house. She might not even be here.
Kate clung to the dim beacon of hope as she advanced another few steps. As much as she wanted to quietly call out to her sister, she resisted the urge. With her luck, the moment she spoke would be the same instant one of the psychopaths downstairs decided to patrol the hall.
The approximate shape of her sister’s bed was about all she could make out in the darkness. If she wasn’t careful, she’d trip or run into a piece of furniture and alert the intruders.
With a trembling hand, Kate reached to her back pocket to retrieve her cell. Entering in the PIN to unlock the screen was an arduous task, and she almost dropped the damn phone twice. Crime shows on television never showed people in a panic struggling to perform basic functions, like entering a six-digit code on a touch screen.
Tears of frustration and panic stung the corners of her eyes, but Kate refused to let them fall. Grating her teeth together, she held her breath and willed her thumb to cooperate.
Come on. 8-8-6-4-7-2.
A wave of relief washed over her as the numpad finally disappeared. The starry sky background was one of the most welcoming sights Kate had ever laid eyes on.
She didn’t hesitate to turn the device over to shine the screen on the floor in front of her feet. She had a flashlight app, but she never used the damn thing, and she didn’t want to waste precious time trying to find the right buttons. Besides, it was so dark in Kelly’s room that she only needed the glow from the home screen.
Sure enough, she was only a few steps away from the foot of Kelly’s bed. Tendrils of hope snuck in beside the panic and terror. If she could get herself and her sister the hell out of here, then…
As she shifted the phone to illuminate Kelly’s bed, her breath caught in her throat.
The white and green striped comforter was pulled up over the pillows, but a darker shade of crimson had soaked through the fabric.
Kate began to reach for the blanket, but she had no idea what she hoped to find. Best case scenario was…what, exactly? A bloody nose? A spilled drink? A head injury?
An iron tang filled her nostrils. She knew what she’d find, but she had to be sure.
At the same time she lifted the blanket, the creak of the stairs ripped her attention away from the sight of her sister’s still form.
Someone was coming.
Tears blurred her vision again, her pulse pounding in her ears as she glanced to the bed. Kelly was facedown, but there was no mistaking the head of dark brown hair. The meager light of Kate’s phone glinted off coagulating blood that coated not only the back of her sister’s head but part of the comforter that Kate had lifted.
She threw the blanket back over her sister like it was a venomous animal that had bitten her. Her heart felt like it was coated in ice. Guts churning, Kate clamped a hand over her mouth to silence a sob.
Kelly was dead. Shot, undoubtedly by the same people who’d assaulted and killed her father downstairs. And her mom, what about her mom?
Someone’s coming. Focus. Hide.
Using the faint light of her phone, Kate picked her way over to the door of Kelly’s closet. Her motions were robotic as she twisted the knob, her entire body numb, mind reeling.
Before she could pry open the door, the floorboards outside Kelly’s room alerted her to someone’s presence.
Metal creaked as the person in the hall turned the knob.
This was it. Because Kate had been frozen by the sight of her dead sister for so long, she was about to be caught in front of a closet door by a lunatic. She was a sitting duck.
No. Not like this. I won’t let him catch me standing here like a dumbass.
Survival instincts she didn’t even know she possessed took over. A computer desk Kelly used more for gaming than homework rested against the wall perpendicular to the closet. When their parents had given Kelly the desk, Kate remembered thinking Kelly’s choice of placement was at least partially strategic.
From where it sat beside the doorway, her parents wouldn’t have time to glimpse what was on the monitor before Kelly had a chance to minimize anything she didn’t want them to see. Smart, but no surprise considering the source. Kelly had always been the better student between the two Denson girls, but she’d preferred video games to homework just about any day of the week. All the coursework had come easily to Kelly, leaving her plenty of time to game.
Kate shoved her grief back into the darker recesses of her mind. Holding her breath, she ducked away from the closet and crouched in the kneehole of the desk. She’d be dead if the man on the other side of the door decided to take a thorough gander around the room, but she had no other options.
Tucking both knees up to her chest, she took in a breath as quietly as she could manage and turned off her phone to darken the screen.
The door creaked open, and a handful of muffled footsteps followed. When they stopped, Kate hugged herself a little tighter, praying to any deity that would listen that her phone was still on silent.
“Kelly Denson.” The man’s voice seemed to echo through the room like sound bouncing off slab walls in a mausoleum. “I’m sorry this had to happen, but we don’t get to pick our family, do we?”
Kate pressed her face into her knees and swallowed against the fading sting of bile in her throat.
Just leave. Just leave, please. Please. Please. Please.
The man took another step, but Kate couldn’t be sure if he was moving closer or farther away. Seconds dragged by with each passing moment like a tally mark on a prison cell wall.
Kate wasn’t sure how much more she could take. For a beat, she wondered if she’d be better off if the man in her sister’s room just killed her.
She shut the sentiment down as soon as it had formed. No, someone had to tell the authorities what had happened here. Kate’s sister, dad, and probably her mother were all dead, and she was the only one who would ever be able to speak on their behalf.
She had to survive.
Tightening her grip on the butcher knife, Kate closed her eyes and thought back to the affirmations she and Marlee had come up with during their second semester in college.
I am resilient. I am strong. I will get through this.
She repeated them before adding a new affirmation. I’ll survive, and I’ll tell my family’s story.
Her hand ached from her death grip on the knife.
She wasn’t as formidable a force as Michael Myers, but she was strong. Like Laurie Strode, the protagonist of the original Halloween, Kate would persevere against unthinkable odds.
I’m going to survive this. Just breathe in and out. Slow and quiet. He doesn’t know I’m here.
When the man cleared his throat, Kate nearly leapt in surprise. “Yeah, I’m coming. Just a second.”
How long had she been curled up beneath her sister’s desk, waiting for this evil prick to leave? Long enough to lose herself in the abyss of her thoughts, apparently.
Though Kate hadn’t heard the person who’d beckoned him, she was grateful that someone had convinced him to leave.
The man let out a long breath and lowered his voice. “Sorry again, Kelly Denson. Sometimes this is just the way it goes. We don’t get to pick our family, do we?”
Hinges creaked as he closed the door, leaving Kate alone in the dark with her sister’s body.
Special Agent Amelia Storm paced back and forth in front of her apartment’s granite breakfast bar, tugging at locks of her dark, blonde-tipped hair as she went. Twirling or pulling on her hair was a long-standing nervous tic, and right now, nervous was the name of her game. In fact, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d been this anxious to talk to another human being.
At quarter ‘til midnight, she was waiting for her friend and fellow FBI special agent, Zane Palmer. She could now add “lover” to that list, though they hadn’t officially established their relationship. Not that the lack of labels was a bad thing. In fact, it was far from the source of her anxiety.
Taking in a deep breath, she rested a hand over her rapidly beating heart and turned to the open living room. She smiled at the long-haired calico perched on one arm of the sectional couch.
“How’re ya doing, sweet girl?” Amelia’s tension eased as she approached the cat and stroked Hup’s soft fur.
A half meow, half purr was the cat’s only response, though she did lift her chin so Amelia could better reach her favorite scratching spot.
“That good, huh? I wish a good scratch could solve some of my problems.”
The cat yawned and rolled over to expose her chest to the ministrations.
Amelia huffed. “You might want to work on your listening skills.”
Amelia had taken Hup in after solving a big case earlier that year, and she hadn’t regretted bringing her furry roommate home since that fateful day.
Being back in Chicago was a blessing and a curse. It’s where she’d lived for her entire childhood. It was where her father, her sister-in-law, niece, and nephew were. During the decade she’d spent in the military, she’d been in Chicago less and less, though her absence was largely by design.
After all, she hadn’t left Chicago at eighteen because she wanted to leave. She’d left because the father of her then-boyfriend had threatened to do unspeakable things to her if she remained in the city.
Parents threatening the significant others of their children wasn’t particularly uncommon. Amelia had witnessed plenty of pudgy, middle-aged men wearing t-shirts that read “rules for dating my daughter” or some other equivalent nonsense.
But most of the men and women wearing those stupid shirts weren’t highly renowned mafia commanders, and most of their sons weren’t their prodigy in the same illicit line of work. Luca Passarelli, the father of Amelia’s high school sweetheart, Alex Passarelli, had been, still was, mafia royalty. A filthy commoner like Amelia Storm had threatened Luca’s ideal for his son’s future—a future that would carry on the lineage of the D’Amato and Passarelli families.
Twisting a piece of hair around her index finger, Amelia paced to the kitchen before turning her attention back to the cat. Though Hup sat perfectly upright, her eyes were closed, and she looked more serene than Amelia had ever felt.
Amelia envied the feline’s ability to shut out the world and sleep for sixteen hours per day. “Must be rough, being a cat.”
One orange and black ear twitched, but otherwise, Hup didn’t acknowledge the human’s presence.
“The only time you’re ever anxious is when you can see the bottom of your food bowl. I bet you’d be freaking out a little too if you were about to tell your…boyfriend? Is that what he is?” Amelia waved a dismissive hand like she was talking to another human being who was paying attention to her, and not a cat that was half-asleep. “Whatever he is, I’m going to tell him about the note I got a week ago.”
She paused in her rant. Was it a week ago? No, almost two weeks ago.
It had been nearly fourteen days since Amelia had arrested the serial killer James Amsdell, whom the media had dubbed The New Moon Killer due to his deranged religious motivation, which included carving Bible verses into the flesh of each victim. He’d even dumped two people into Lake Michigan. After his arrest, Amelia had emerged from a coffee shop to find a handwritten note beneath one of her car’s windshield wipers.
I need to talk to you. I’ve been putting this off for far too long, and it’s time you know the truth about what happened to Trevor. I was his confidential informant in the Gianna Passarelli case. Don’t waste your time looking for my name. You won’t find it.
Please understand this is very risky for me. There are fates much worse than death that await me if I’m caught. I want to meet with you. Be at this address in two weeks.
And the writer of the note? Someone who alleged to be her brother’s confidential informant during a mafia-related kidnapping case.
A case that had led up to Trevor Storm being shot and killed by a still-unknown assailant. A case that Trevor had worked off the books for the D’Amato family—one of Chicago’s two major Italian crime families.
The time to meet up with the supposed informant was nearing, and Amelia hadn’t heard another peep from the CI. Not a text, an email, a phone call, or even another damned note.
They’d given her an address to meet, but aside from stipulating “two weeks,” they hadn’t provided a specific timeframe. When it came to a person who might have information pertaining to her brother’s murder, she wasn’t willing to deal in approximations. She wanted a specific date and time, but she didn’t have the first clue how to get either.
“Don’t waste your time looking for my name. You won’t find it.”
She’d ignored the pointed suggestion altogether, and her first order of business had been to search for the damn name by scouring every case Trevor had ever worked on, hoping something might pop out at her. What kind of investigator would she be if she’d just taken the note at its word?
Then, there were the photos she’d been given of fellow special agent Joseph Larson on a yacht with a former trafficking suspect, Brian Kolthoff—also known as The Shark. Kolthoff was a former venture capitalist turned D.C. lobbyist, a billionaire, and Amelia strongly suspected, a sex trafficker. If the man was in cahoots with one of the FBI’s own, then the relationship could have dire implications.
Blowing out a frustrated sigh, she leaned against the granite bar and scrutinized the open floorplan of her apartment. Hup’s tail swished.
“Don’t you swish your tail at me. This is my apartment. I can sigh as much as I want. You don’t pay rent here.”
The calico’s ears flattened slightly, and Amelia wondered if she’d understood the sarcasm.
Amelia threw her arms up in the air. “Then get a job and pay rent.”
Another tail flick was followed by a squinty stare.
“You didn’t like that idea very much, did you?” An outside observer might have thought Amelia was insane for holding a conversation with her cat, but there were times Amelia thought Hup must have been a person in a previous life.
Hup tucked her front paws beneath herself until she resembled a loaf. As the cat closed her eyes, Amelia resumed pacing.
The day before, Amelia had chickened out when she’d decided to tell Zane, the man who may or may not be her significant other, about the note.
Or maybe she hadn’t chickened out as much as she’d been swept up in the heat of a moment that had come with their reunion after his three-day trip to visit family on the East Coast. Amelia had spent the Christmas holiday with her dad and her sister-in-law, but she and Zane had both agreed it was premature to drag the other out to meet parents and siblings.
Either way, she’d planned to tell him yesterday, but she hadn’t succeeded.
On the surface, discussing the mysterious note with someone she trusted as much as Zane shouldn’t have bothered her. And it wouldn’t have, except revealing the person who claimed to be Trevor’s confidential informant meant unearthing all the skeletons that went along with her brother’s final years.
Namely, the fact that he was a corrupt cop working for the D’Amato family. And if she revealed Trevor’s relationship with the D’Amatos to Zane, then she’d have to explain her affiliation.
If anyone other than Zane found out she’d used information obtained from a D’Amato family capo to arrest the creeps responsible for an underage sex trafficking ring, it might mean the case could be reopened and the conviction potentially overturned.
It didn’t stop there, either. Alex Passarelli had provided valuable information that helped her locate sixteen-year-old Leila Jackson from within Emilio Leóne’s sex trafficking ring. While CIs were used all the time and only rarely had their identities revealed, the optics of being seen with a mafia capo could derail Amelia’s credibility and her career.
They don’t have to find out. Zane won’t tell anyone. I know he won’t. I trust him.
Amelia gnawed at her bottom lip. Fortunately, her brain didn’t have much more time to spiral into the land of what-ifs before she caught a pair of headlights glinting through the half-closed blinds. Heart thud-thudding against her chest, Amelia quickly strode over to check the parking lot from her second-story vantage point.
Relief, mixed with a touch of trepidation, flooded her as she spotted the familiar silver Acura.
Twenty minutes ago, Zane had sent her a text to tell her he was on his way to her place. Zane had been invited to the engagement party of one of the younger men who were part of the cleaning crew that maintained the FBI building.
In Zane’s nine months in Chicago, he’d befriended most of the field office’s janitorial staff. Even now, Amelia was fairly sure Zane had more friends on the cleaning crew than he did in the actual Bureau.
He’d asked Amelia to accompany him to the evening’s festivities, but she’d declined in the interest of spending her evening napping and watching television. Now that the Amsdell case had wrapped up, she’d been grateful for the moments of respite.
To her chagrin, all she’d done instead was mentally go over the upcoming conversation. Over. And over. And over. She’d imagined all the ways the dialogue could go horribly wrong, but few instances where the discussion went well.
Seeming to sense another person would soon encroach on her territory, Hup opened her eyes and twitched her ears.
As Amelia made her way to the foyer, she pointed an accusatory finger at the cat. “You don’t pay rent, remember? You don’t get to decide when we have company. Go nap somewhere else if you don’t like it.”
In response, Hup yawned.
Flicking the deadbolt, Amelia glanced back toward the breakfast bar. She’d stuffed the note, as well as the two printed images of Larson and Kolthoff, into a manila envelope. Partially because she didn’t want to languish in front of them any more than she already had, and partially because she couldn’t help but wonder if they were connected.
Had Trevor been on Kolthoff’s radar? On Joseph’s radar?
Anger bubbled in Amelia’s veins at the thought. She’d never been one to put much stock into coincidence. Even in a city the size of Chicago, there were only a few degrees of separation for the average Joe.
When it came to criminal activity, just about everyone had something to say about everyone else. No one operated on any noteworthy scale without piquing the attention of one of the major players in the city’s seedy underbelly. The San Luis Cartel, the Veracruz Cartel, the D’Amato family, the Leóne family, or the Russians.
Amelia rubbed her temples and forced the doubts from her head. Squinting through the peephole, she caught sight of Zane as he ascended the last few steps at the end of the hall. The sight of him lifted her spirits and drove away a portion of her worries.
Now that she could see him, somehow, she felt more confident about presenting the note and the pictures to him.
He’d understand why she hadn’t said anything until now. Both of them harbored secrets, and they’d learned to trust that the other would reveal them if or when it became relevant.
Well, it’s relevant now, isn’t it?
Pulling open the door, she permitted a wide smile to make its way to her face.
At six-three, a height attained thanks in part to his Nordic ancestry, Zane stood more than half a foot taller than Amelia’s five-eight. With his professed hatred of shaving, a couple days’ worth of stubble almost always darkened his cheeks. Aside from his scruffy face, however, every aspect of his appearance was always meticulous. Tonight was no exception.
Parted to the side, his dark blond hair was brushed forward and styled as fashionably as ever, and his usual black frock coat made him look every bit the part of an FBI agent. Even if he was just coming from an engagement party.
His gray eyes met hers, and his lips parted in a wide smile that revealed perfectly straight white teeth.
That showstopping smile still made her feel as giddy as a lovestruck teenager. “Hey, you. How was the party?”
He stepped past her as she closed and locked the door. “Good. They did a potluck thing, which I guess is a tradition in their family.” He patted his belly. “Lots of homemade food. I stuffed my face.”
Amelia laughed, permitting herself to soak up the moment of good humor. No matter the hardships she’d faced since returning to Chicago, she was truly glad to be in the presence of a wonderful person like Zane Palmer.
She waited until he’d shucked off his coat and shoes before she wrapped him in a tight embrace. “I’m glad you had a good time.”
Tucking two fingers beneath her chin, he lifted her face for a light, loving kiss. This was the point yesterday where Amelia had lost her will to broach the subject of the note and the D’Amato family, electing instead to press herself against his lean, muscular frame and usher him in the direction of the bedroom.
Tonight was different, however. Time was growing short, and her meeting with Trevor’s supposed CI was right around the corner. In order to lock in her commitment to discuss the subject with Zane, Amelia had even sent him a text advising that she had a dilemma she wanted to run by him. That way, even if she tried to procrastinate or dodge the subject, he’d have enough curiosity to prod an answer out of her.
Provided he remembered, that was. But when a girlfriend or partner or whatever she was sent a message asking to talk something through, what man or woman could forget?
Not Zane. He might act like a goofball, but he had a mind like a steel trap.
Just rip off the band-aid. Show him the pictures and the note and get this shit out in the open already.
As they separated, Amelia took a step toward the dining table and cleared her throat. “So, um, there’s something I wanted to ask you about.”
He cocked an eyebrow, his gaze following her every movement. “Oh? Is it about…us?” He gestured to her and then himself. “Whether or not we’re a thing?”
A pang of guilt stabbed at Amelia’s heart. She hadn’t wanted her message to cause him any worry, but she didn’t miss the trepidation in his voice. “That wasn’t it, no. But we are, aren’t we? Or do we want to be?”
His expression brightened a notch. “Of course I want to be. What say you, Ms. Storm?”
Even the way he still spoke with a slight Jersey accent was endearing. Despite the heavy subject matter ahead of them, she grinned at his response. “I say yes, we’re a thing.”
He held up an invisible glass and returned her smile. “Here’s to being a thing, then.”
Amelia couldn’t remember the last time she was this happy. It would be so easy to forget about the damn D’Amatos and the cryptic note and just enjoy her night with this man. But she knew herself, and she knew the CI’s message would eat away at her until it drove her insane.
Happiness later. For now, she needed to get this over with.
Motioning to the manila envelope, she took a couple more steps toward the matte black table. “I…have something to show you. Something I might need your help with.”
His face went from jovial to focused in a fraction of a second. With a silent nod, he followed her to the dining area next to the breakfast bar.
Amelia’s pulse picked up speed, and her palms were suddenly clammy.
It’s been three years since Trevor was killed, and you haven’t talked about it with anyone other than the detectives who worked his case. It’s time to put this shit out in the open. Time to get some answers, and by now, it ought to be obvious you might need a little help with that.
Following the mental pep talk, a surge of determination chased away the nervousness. Revealing vulnerabilities and asking for help had never come naturally to Amelia. Ever since she was a kid and her mother died, she’d shouldered every one of her life’s emotional burdens by herself.
With an alcoholic father—who was currently four years sober—she hadn’t been granted many resources to navigate her emotional hardships. Trevor had helped, but there was only so much she’d been comfortable sharing with her older brother. And then, of course, he’d been killed.
The inner contemplation lasted for only a moment, and when she returned her focus to the room, she was confident she was doing the right thing. Not only was Zane an important person in her life, but he was also a former CIA operative. He’d never said the words specifically, but Amelia had deduced enough in their conversations to conclude his ten-plus years with the Bureau hadn’t actually been spent with the FBI.
Amelia cleared her throat a second time and scooped up the manila envelope. “It’s…sort of work-related, I guess? Part of it is. Part of it isn’t.”
Though an irrational part of her worried he’d grow impatient with all her postponement, Zane’s expression changed little as she fumbled with the metal clasp.
Pulling in a deep breath, she pulled out the note and plunked it down on the table. “Remember when I grabbed sandwiches from Herman’s after the Amsdell takedown?”
Zane’s gaze flicked from the paper to Amelia and back. “Yeah. Herman’s was Steelman’s recommendation, and we’ve been back there, like, five times since then.”
Her spirits lifted a little at the comment, and she reminded herself this wasn’t an excuse to get side-tracked. She tapped the note for emphasis. “Cassandra and I were at the café near the office, and when I went out to my car, this was under the windshield.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Cassandra Halcott had taken point on prosecuting the New Moon Killer. The discovery of a new serial killer who’d been active for more than four years had been a national media sensation, and to Amelia’s relief, Halcott had taken on the entirety of the spotlight.
Unless public relations were part of their job description, FBI agents in Organized Crime weren’t often exposed to the media, save for official press conferences. Such a public profile would render undercover work nearly impossible, though Amelia had already crossed that bridge when she’d been framed by a fellow agent.
Former Special Agent Glenn Kantowski, a member of the Bureau’s Public Corruption Unit, had disseminated doctored photos of Amelia screwing a city councilman. Thanks to the quick work of Cassandra Halcott and the U.S. Attorney’s office, the Bureau had nipped the scandal in the bud before it could become a nationwide headline. However, the story had been picked up by every local news outlet, which meant Amelia’s days of in-depth undercover work had ended before they’d begun.
A crease gradually deepened between his eyebrows as Zane scanned the sheet of notebook paper. “Someone left this on your car in broad daylight, at a coffee shop?”
His tone was non-accusatory, but Amelia was still struck with a reflexive pang of defensiveness. “I know, it sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?”
He shook his head. “No, not really. It’s the same concept as hiding in plain sight. It’s just…” he paused and ran a hand through his sandy brown hair, “for the person to do something that ballsy, it shows some level of confidence. It makes me wonder who in the hell this is.”
Amelia had to admit his point was valid. She’d mulled over the mystery person’s identity more times than she could count. “I was thinking the same thing. It makes me wonder if…” She worried at her bottom lip. The theory was a little out-there, but considering the crux of what she was dealing with, nothing was too farfetched. “If they’re an FBI agent.”
Scratching his unshaven cheek, Zane pulled out a chair and dropped down to sit. “I wouldn’t rule it out. But it says they’re your brother’s old CI, so that wouldn’t make any sense. Why would an agent be a CI to a city detective?”
“I don’t know. I thought the same thing. It just seemed like a convenient theory, I guess. But…” Now came the hard part. The context behind the note. Secrets Amelia had kept buried since she was a teenager…since she fled Chicago and joined the military.
Through the doubt that clawed at the back of her mind, she took a seat, angling the chair to face Zane. His face was a mask of concern, and it struck her that this was perhaps the most vulnerable he’d ever been in her presence.
Typically, Zane Palmer was unbothered by just about anything. He wore his insecurities on his sleeve, or at least, that’s what he wanted people to believe. Despite his never-ending supply of embarrassing middle school stories, there were deeper struggles he faced that Amelia doubted he’d shared with another living soul.
For him to be so worried was bizarre. Like Amelia had awoken to find the earth spinning in the wrong direction.
She took in a deep breath and straightened her back. “There’s more to it. To Trevor, and to me too, I guess.”
He lifted an eyebrow, some of the anxiety giving way to curiosity. “I know, and it’s okay. Does it have something to do with this note? And with how your brother was killed?”
Amelia should have known someone as sharp as Zane would have put two and two together by now. “Yes. Well, at least, I think it does. There’s not really any other explanation. Look, this is going to sound bad no matter how I go about it, so I’ll cut right to it. My brother was…he wasn’t exactly on the straight and narrow.”
Zane pulled the note closer and scrutinized it before he turned back to Amelia. “He was dirty?”
The base of Amelia’s skull prickled, and she fought the rush of defensiveness and anger the simple statement brought to light. Blowing out a long sigh, she massaged her temples.
Before she could speak, Zane lifted a hand. “Sorry. I didn’t mean it like…that. I’ll shut up now.”
“No, it’s okay.” The irritability subsided as she returned her attention to him. “It’s true. He wasn’t a bad guy, but he was dirty. He worked with the D’Amato family.”
Saying the words out loud was surreal. For a beat, Amelia wasn’t sure if she was in the real world or some form of The Twilight Zone. Until now, she was the only person—aside from the D’Amatos, of course—who’d known about Trevor’s extracurricular activities during his tenure with the Chicago Police Department.
The pain beginning to pulse in her temples was a reminder that this was, in fact, reality. “I don’t know what exactly he did for them. Probably the usual, at least for the most part. But I do know of one thing he was doing for them when he was killed. The detectives who worked his case didn’t find anything that pointed to either the D’Amatos or the Leónes, but we both know how well those families can hide something they don’t want people to find.”
Zane snorted quietly. “That’s no shit.”
Half smiling, Amelia threaded her fingers together to keep herself from wringing her hands. “Well, that’s why no one ever found what I’m about to tell you. Because the D’Amatos didn’t want them to. And because I didn’t want them to.”
He kept his gaze fixed on hers, his gentle expression a silent bid to continue. A reminder he wouldn’t judge her.
“When I was in high school, five years after my mom died, I got a job at a movie theater. My dad blew all his money on booze, and the only way I was going to get anything I wanted was to buy it myself. I was only fifteen, so I got shit for hours and was always assigned to the concession stand.”
Zane chuckled, but Amelia could tell the laugh was mostly for her sake.
She pushed her hair back from her face and locked her fingers behind her neck. “Sorry. I digress. That’s where I met the guy I dated throughout high school.” She licked her lips and mentally braced for the words she was about to say aloud. “That guy was Alex Passarelli.”
For only a split second, Zane’s eyes shot open wide. In the silence that followed, however, the surprise dissipated from his face, replaced by understanding. “I can see why you wouldn’t want the Bureau to know about that. Good thing that was before social media got as big as it is now, huh?”
His lighthearted tone was like music to Amelia’s ears. Finally, after the nine and a half months they’d known one another, Amelia’s darkest secrets were out in the open.
More importantly, she’d been right. Judgment or anger was nowhere to be found in Zane’s expression. As he tilted his head to the side, he tapped his index finger on the note. “That’s how your brother got his start with the D’Amatos, right?”
“Yeah.” She held out her hands. “I don’t know when, and I don’t know how. Trevor took all that information with him when he died, and god knows Alex won’t ever tell me the truth.”
Zane rubbed his chin. “You’ve been in contact with him?”
“Professionally.” Amelia’s tone was crisper than she’d intended, and warmth crept up her cheeks. “Sorry, I couldn’t tell if you were asking as a…boyfriend, or you know.”
To her relief, he flashed her one of his patented grins. “Asking professionally.”
Huffing with feigned indignation, Amelia crossed her legs and arms. “I mean, I couldn’t just show back up in Chicago to work in Organized Crime without consulting my mob boss ex-boyfriend.”
Zane laughed. “True. Seems like he’d be a valuable source of information on the Leónes too.”
“The world’s weirdest CI.” If Amelia didn’t make light of the situation, she was sure the borderline dissociation would swallow her whole. “He gave me information in the Leila Jackson case. He provided Giorgio Delusso’s identity and the location of Emilio Leóne’s hideout.”
Zane offered an approving nod. “We take those. That’s what the kids are saying, isn’t it? Ex-boyfriend, mob boss, who gives a shit when it helps you lock up a sex trafficker at the end of the day. Trust me, I’ve gotten information from shadier sources.”
She didn’t doubt him. The entire purpose of the CIA was to gather intelligence on issues related to national security. They took their leads where they got them.
Now that revealing the tangled mess that was her relationship with Alex Passarelli was out of the way, renewed determination rushed through Amelia’s veins. She grabbed the manila envelope, pulled out the two photos of Joseph Larson and Brian Kolthoff, and set them just above the note.
Zane sucked in a sharp breath. “What the hell? Is that…Larson? And Brian Kolthoff? The fucking Shark?” His gaze snapped back up to hers. “Where did you get these?”
“Alex Passarelli.” Amelia took stock of the pictures.
Both depicted Larson and Kolthoff on the upper deck of a luxurious yacht, though the vessel was different in each photo. In the older of the pair, the men each held drinks, their colorful button-down shirts and shades giving off a vacation vibe.
As for the second, newer image, Kolthoff was in the middle of laughing, presumably at something Joseph had said. Their attire was more formal this time—more “cocktail party” and less “spring break.”
“Shit.” Zane drew the word out from one syllable to more than five. “These are two different locations, yeah?”
“Right.” She gestured to the image of the two creeps in their Hawaiian getup. “That one is from four years ago, or at least that’s what Alex said. The other is more recent. It’s from a few months ago.”
“Shit.” Zane nearly spit the word that time. “That means when we worked the Leila Jackson case, Larson was already pals with The Shark?”
“Exactly. This proves it.” She wrapped a piece of hair around her index finger, finally giving in to the tic. “The only problem is I can’t exactly take these in and sit them down in front of SAC Keaton, you know? I need to corroborate them, which is what I’ve been working on. I just haven’t had any luck.”
“I can help with that.”
Gratitude seized Amelia’s throat. Moments when Amelia was rendered speechless weren’t common, but she struggled to find a suitable response to Zane’s assurance.
Sure, she’d wanted to ask him for his expertise on the situation. She’d hoped he might have an old contact in the CIA who could give them some more background, but she hadn’t been prepared for him to come out and offer his assistance right off the bat.
He leaned closer to the table, his eyes flitting from one picture to the next. “We know these aren’t Larson’s boats, so they’re probably Kolthoff’s. Kolthoff’s a billionaire, and if I remember right, he’s got one of the top fifty largest yachts in the world. Boats have to dock somewhere, right? Usually, those places are…” he made a show of weighing his hands, “heavily monitored, to say the least. I think I might have someone that could help us out.”
Amelia opened and closed her mouth a couple times before shaking off the moment of surprise. Of course he’d help her. What else should she have expected? “Thank you. I really appreciate that.”
He smiled and rested a hand on her forearm. “You know I’ve got your back. This might be what we need to finally get Larson the hell out of the FBI. If we can do it before he applies for Spencer’s spot, I think we’d be doing the Bureau a favor.”
After Joseph had tried and failed to blackmail Amelia into sleeping with him, she’d just as soon send him to a prison cell. What for, she still wasn’t sure. However, his relationship with Brian Kolthoff and his subsequent involvement in the Leila Jackson investigation—and his failure to disclose his friendship with Kolthoff after the man had become their prime suspect—was most definitely an offense worthy of firing.
She’d take what she could get.
Scooting to the edge of her chair, Amelia pointed to the note. The most difficult part of the conversation was over, but there was still a significant problem to solve.
Zane’s gaze followed hers to the paper. “Right. What’s the background for this?”
“When my brother died, he was investigating a kidnapping. Gianna Passarelli’s case. The cops who worked it initially had shelved it by that point. It was a cold case, and the D’Amatos paid my brother a pretty penny to reopen it off the books. Apparently, they thought he’d have access to a lot of resources they didn’t, and he could make some headway in the case where the previous detectives had failed.”
Zane nodded his understanding. “What did he find?”
Amelia lifted a shoulder and let it fall. “I don’t know. Nothing, as far as I can tell.”
“They, whoever ‘they’ is, wouldn’t have killed him if he’d found nothing.” The surety with which Zane spoke the words insisted he was speaking from experience.
“That’s what I think too. I tried to find any record of who this CI might be, but like they said in the note, there’s nothing. Whoever they are, they’re a ghost. I got this thing almost two weeks ago, and I still have no idea what time or what specific day they expect me to meet with them.”
“How about the address? Did you find anything from it?”
She slumped down in her seat. “Nothing. It’s just a park east of the city. There’s a pond, and Google reviews of the place say some mean geese like to hang out there during the spring and summer.”
“This person has to give you something more than ‘meet me in two weeks.’ That leaves way too much to interpretation. Is it exactly two weeks, or do they mean two business weeks? And what time? Are you just supposed to spend your entire day out in bum fuck nowhere waiting for this person who may or may not show while fending off geese from hell?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.” She propped an elbow on the table and dropped her cheek into her hand. “I really want to know who in the hell wrote this, but like you said, I can’t spend an entire day out of the city just sitting on my hands.”
“Yeah, I know.” Zane reached for the pocket of his black slacks. As he produced his cell, he shot Amelia a sheepish look. “Sorry. I didn’t think I’d be getting any calls at midnight.”
With a reassuring smile, she gestured to the living room. “Mine is sitting in there with the volume turned on. We’re in the same boat so don’t feel bad.”
Zane turned his phone so she could view the screen. “Speaking of work, that’s who’s calling.”
“Well, you’d better answer it.” Amelia’s mood sank a notch at the idea of Zane being summoned to work. Their job wasn’t just a typical nine-to-five grind. If the FBI was calling late at night on a Sunday, then the reason was important.
Mouthing an apology, Zane swiped the screen and raised the phone to his ear. “This is Agent Palmer.”
A tinny voice responded immediately, but Amelia could only make out enough to discern that the caller was their boss, Spencer Corsaw.
“Uh-huh.” Zane’s face grew somber. “A judge?”
Goose bumps rose on Amelia’s forearms.
“Okay. Yeah, I’ll grab Agent Storm, and we’ll head to the scene. All right. Thanks, you too. Bye.”
No, Zane wasn’t being called into work. They both were. “That didn’t sound good.”
Zane shoved to his feet and pocketed his cell. “It’s not. A federal judge and her family were just found murdered in their home.”
Amelia followed his lead and stood, her emotions and hopes for the evening taking a back seat as she donned her Agent Storm persona. “Let’s go.”
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